Being Good “For Nothing” — Does That Make Atheist Ethics Better Than Christian?

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Get the picture?

Here’s the challenge:

Atheistic morality is allegedly better than Christianity because Christians are looking for a reward for our goodness, while atheists are good “for nothing.” (Again, I am not saying “good for nothing.”)

There are three parts to that statement:

  1. Christian goodness is motivated by a hoped-for reward.
  2. Atheists’ goodness is goodness for its own sake.
  3. Goodness for its own sake is intrinsically better than goodness for a reward.

Does that make atheist ethics better than Christian ethics? Let’s look at each of these points in turn.

1. Christian goodness is motivated by a hoped-for reward.

Yes, partly. But what is the reward? I suspect most non-believers think we’re trying to be good so we can gain eternal life. That would be a good description of some religions but not Christianity. Christianity teaches that it’s not our goodness that gains us life, it’s the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It requires belief, not works. That’s what John 3:16 is about.

The reward, then, isn’t eternal life. It isn’t walking on “streets of gold.” It’s fellowship with God.

This may be even harder for atheists to grasp. I am very eagerly looking forward to heaven. Read the biblical descriptions and it looks pretty good: No crying, no tears, for “the former things have passed away.” Streets of gold, yes, that, too.

But if someone told me that heaven would be all that without Jesus Christ I’d turn and spit. I wouldn’t be interested. The idea is appalling. What I really want in heaven is fellowship with the ones I love, especially with the greatest of them all, Jesus Christ.

Doing the right thing is, for me, an expression of my desire to follow Jesus Christ because he is worthy of being followed; to be like him because he was and is the ultimate good. He is the greatest lover of human beings in all history. He’s attractive in that sense: he makes me want to be like him.

The reward of following Jesus is being with him. If that’s impure, well, see #3 below.

That doesn’t mean my motivations are always as clean and pure as that; far from it, since I’m pretty inconsistent about living the Christian life. But to the extent that my motivations are Christian motivations (which is what the challenge is about, after all), that’s how they operate. That’s how they bring me to do good.

2. Atheists’ goodness is goodness for its own sake.

There’s a lot to wonder about here. The very term “goodness” is hard to get a grip on, if all of reality is controlled without exception by natural law — which is the typical atheist view on things. It would seem to lead to the conclusion that when atheists (like everyone else) do good, it isn’t because they have any particularly good reasons motivating them, but because they’re doing it deterministically. Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are two leading atheists who deny the possibility of free will. In so doing they deny that humans act for any cause except for natural law, which seems to exclude acting in any manner at all because of reasons. On that basis it’s hard for atheists to say they believe they’re acting for reasons more noble than Christians.

The idea of acting altruistically seems likely also to be wrapped up in questions of evolution. This is a highly charged and heavily contested matter among evolutionary scientists, so I don’t want to draw premature conclusions. Yet I have to wonder: Is goodness a fruit of evolutionary forces on humans? If so, is it the product of evolution-plus-something, or is it simply the result of evolution? If the former, what is the “something” and where did it come from? If the latter, how does one person’s set of motivations for doing good rise above another person’s? It’s just evolution in that case.

3. Goodness for its own sake is intrinsically better than goodness for a reward.

Goodness for the hope of a reward can be wrong, that’s for sure. It’s often a mask for self-serving self-interest. Self-sacrificial goodness, on the other hand, is the ultimate good, for as Jesus said, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.

Most of our actions lie somewhere between those extremes of total hypocrisy and ultimate self-sacrifice, however. I like to wash the dishes at home when my wife is away. I do it quite intentionally with the hope and expectation that I’ll get a big smile from her when she gets home. Sara has the world’s best smile, so that’s quite a reward for me. So is my motivation mixed up?

Of course when I do the dishes it isn’t just for her. It’s also so my own home looks better and is easier to live in. That’s a reward, too. Is it ignoble to do good for reasons like that?

Back to Sara and her smile, though. I do the work for my own benefit, but I do it more happily when it’s with the that it’s going to make her happy. What then if it made her happy but she didn’t reward me with that world-class smile of hers? Then something would be amiss there. Her joy is normally expressed in her smile. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

Suppose, though, something else was going on that was troubling her, something that overshadowed her appreciation of the work I did. Then at least I’d know I had done something to make her world better. Even without her smile I would find that thought rewarding.

Now, is that a sign that my motives were impure — that I was working so that I could feel happy inside about making her happier?

I don’t think so. It’s a sign of a normal loving relationship. If I didn’t enjoy the thought of her being happy I’d be a monstrous sort of husband. If I didn’t enjoy making her happy I’d be a louse. So doing good for her is inextricably connected with making her happy which is inextricably connected with my own happiness. There’s nothing wrong with those motivations being tied together that way. It’s the way the world is supposed to work.

Similarly, my love for Christ leads me to enjoy that idea that I’m doing well in his name. That’s just as right — it’s just as much in line with the way the world is supposed to work — as it is for me to enjoy doing good for my wife to make her happy.

(By the way, I’m sure she would be even happier if I were this good a husband a lot more often than I am. Similarly, and even more so, for my service for Jesus Christ. I keep talking about doing virtuous things because doing bad things isn’t part of the topic under discussion.)

Conclusion

We’ve looked at the three parts of this atheist claim of superior morality. There are significant questions about some of it, significant misunderstandings about other parts of it, and a doubtful premise underlying the whole thing.

In the end I don’t feel threatened at all by the claim that someone else’s morality is better than mine. I’m not interested in those kinds of comparisons. It isn’t about whether some atheist’s morality arises out of better motivations than mine. It’s about whether atheism is intrinsically better than Christianity.

For that, there is no better place to look than at our founder, Jesus Christ, in whom there is no trace of him abusing his power, or even using it for his own purposes. There is self-sacrifice. There is a complete and unwavering concern for others above himself. He did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

You won’t find that kind of love anywhere else in history or human imagination. Christianity that follows that kind of example is bound to be good, self-sacrificing, loving, and genuine. Sometimes you can even find examples of people living out that kind of Christianity. It’s a beautiful thing when you see it.

Image sources: Sodahead, Atheist Republic